Monday, April 10, 2006

HeRSToRy 001 Carrie Stearns

    Carrie was just out of high school and already active in the anti-nuclear movement in Ithaca, NY when she and others conceived of the idea of a U.S. women’s peace camp. She had been a part of the Women's Pentagon Actions in 1980 and 1981 and helped create the Upstate Feminist Peace Alliance with women from Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. In late 1982, motivated by recent reports of nuclear weapons being stored at the Seneca Army Depot and inspired by the women at Greenham Common, the group began planning what became the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice. Carrie’s affinity group in the summer of 1983 crawled under the depot fence and set up tents on the airstrip before being detained and released. Her involvement with WEFPJ ended after that summer.  

Audio excerpt from Carrie's interview:

      TRANSCRIPT: "Well, when you think back now and you think about, when I think back to Seneca Army Depot and what was there and what it stood for and then I think of women coming and challenging that and I think that's very powerful despite all of the messiness of it, which I really understand now is just part of what we would expect - to be messy and not peaceful necessarily. But that it is a beautiful thing to think about that being challenged in some kind of a way or that people were trying their very best to say, that this isn't how we want to live in this world. I'm glad, I'm glad for all of that and I hope that we somehow keep learning how to be neighbors to one another and how to listen and understand that basically everybody, in my sense, has somewhere in their core a very similar sense about, and it's just whether they're, how they're choosing to act on that or to protect themselves, it comes out differently."

Interview: Carrie Stearns
Date: October 10, 2005
Location: Ithaca, NY
Present: Estelle Coleman, hershe Michele Kramer

Carrie, can you tell us how the peace camp got started?
I'll tell you what I can remember - we had some kind of an upstate New York women's peace alliance and we were following what the Greenham Common (1) women were trying to do. Though none of us had been to Greenham, some of us had gone to the Women's Pentagon Action together (2). Carolyn [Mow -see Herstory 0-1-2, August 20, 2006] had gone to jail after one of those actions. The Women's Pentagon Action had a lot to do with inspiring the peace camp because those of us who were a part of WPA really felt as a group that it would be powerful for women, specifically, to talk about a peace action together and the idea of the camp. I know there were a few of us from Ithaca who were at the WPA - Carolyn was there and Karen [Beetle -see Herstory 0-1-3, august 6, 2006] from Albany and Kris [Eberlein] from Buffalo. I was 17 or 18 years old - I had dropped out of community college to do peace organizing. Karen was 21, Carolyn was probably 24. We had all been activists for a while and knew a lot about organizing and consensus. It was such a hot time for activism and the whole nuclear issue was in our hearts. We had been doing local work with a network of groups, not just women, around Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, NY as well as other military bases in the area. Then there was a big article, I guess it was the Rochester paper, about the Seneca Army Depot (3) and how the depot was storing nuclear weapons. That interested us because it was even more local than Rome, which is a couple of hours away from Ithaca. There were maybe 9 or 10 of us when we started thinking about the idea of a peace camp outside the depot. It felt like the time definitely called for it - that's what I thought as a young person – that a peace camp would be an appropriate response to what was happening globally. It was pretty exciting to feel a part of something that big.

How did the idea of the camp become a reality?
We began by researching the legality of setting up tents outside the gate and within a couple of months, the whole thing just took off. It felt to me like a snowball at the top of a hill that started rolling and got bigger and bigger with a momentum and energy that became so much greater than what we’d ever envisioned. It was a fascinating experience from that perspective because we really thought that we were going to have a relatively small, more local thing - and it was really meant just to be a summer. The organizing group was getting bigger by the winter of 1982, but there were still only 20 or so of us, though I remember it seemed like we were starting to get contacted by people and organizations we didn't know. WILPF (4) was involved by then and as a national organization they certainly helped a lot in getting us publicized. A lot of the work had to happen locally because it was too hard to do from a wider distance. I think we had committees and I think we got together at least once a month for meetings with people from all over who were getting involved, but those of us from upstate NY were at the core. And then at some point we started thinking about needing to buy land - that it would be a safer, more secure way to do the encampment. I don't remember whether we realized we’d be likely to just keep getting arrested or what, because at first we weren’t thinking that we were going to take that big of a step. It was amazing when that piece of land came up. I think it was Kris (Eberlein) who found it and suggested we consider it. None of us had owned property and there was certainly a lot of fear and trepidation on our parts. I think that it was WILPF's backing that made it possible legally and financially. I remember being very nervous about how we were going to come up with the money and how it was going to work, but excited at the same time. We certainly realized that we were getting into something that was going to be way bigger than we had envisioned and that was both exciting and scary.

Can you talk about the Resource Handbook (5) you all put together?
The handbook was really a key part in communicating about the camp, the depot, Romulus and the whole organizational structure of affinity groups. Karen (Beetle) was the editor of the Syracuse Peace Council newsletter so she knew about layout and all of that stuff and I think she did a lot in terms of the handbook. I remember being a part of several handbooks for different actions during that time but I think Seneca’s might have been the first we did and then we used it as kind of a basis for other actions. We got it out to people before the camp opened so that people could organize their affinity groups. I haven't looked back at it in a long time but I do remember feeling really good about it, about what we compiled.

Did you participate in actions that summer?
I took part in the big action on August 1st (6), but I also took part in a smaller action where a group of us put up tents on the base runway and got arrested. I think it must have been before the August 1st action. We wanted to bring the idea of the encampment right onto the base with the idea of stopping the planes. It was a really fun action. There were maybe 8 or 9 of us who actually went over or under the fence and we got some of the tents pretty close to being up before the guards found us. The guards were pretty riled up. I know they had been prepared for the idea that they would have the right to shoot to kill but I don’t remember feeling like our lives were in danger. They brought in a helicopter that landed nearby - that was a little freaky. I had been arrested several times by then so I knew some of the MPs (military police). I remember I was charged and Carolyn was charged and she went to trial and might have served a little bit of time. I know I was one of the last people released after the August 1st action - it was 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. I remember the guy in charge of processing us knew all this stuff about my family. They had obviously done some investigation and he was letting me know that he knew but it was also sort of playful. For the most part I had a pretty good relationship with the MPs and sheriffs because we’d met with them ahead of time to form relationships. The military guys were actually pretty restrained - it was the local townspeople we had to watch out for. They had guns at times and some pretty wild things happened. I remember when I was with our Ithaca affinity group I got cow piss sprayed on me by the locals. There was a lot of that kind of energy coming back at us from the community.

At what point did your feelings about the camp change?
Where things started turning for me was when the camp actually started. I had a really hard time with some of the things that happened and pulled away from the whole thing. I was very, very sensitive as a local person to the reality of the local community and I had put a lot of my energy into trying to help people understand the community we were coming into. Romulus was a very rural, very conservative town largely dependent on the base. As organizers, we were sympathetic to the towns people's situation and what it was like to have us opposing the base when it was something they relied on. We talked about conversion and creating new jobs. I feel like the peace camp obviously became something it needed to be - an expression of something way bigger, but I felt it lost sight of the local community and that was personally, just too painful. I was connected to the community and my investment was as a local person and when I would try to speak up about that at the camp, I felt like my views were not welcome – women didn't want to hear it.

Were these the women you had been organizing with?
No, it was more the people who came from far away and didn’t have the same commitment to the community as those of us who had been organizing the camp. Free expression was just everywhere - people's stuff was flying out and suddenly the structure became much larger - much more representative of the bigger population. I think one of the biggest things that affected me was that we were next to an Amish farm and there was this huge discussion because women wanted to be without their shirts to sun themselves on the roof of the barn, which was in view of the farm. The Amish had asked us to please not do that because they could not hold services on their land. I remember that discussion was the final straw for me because people basically just said, fuck you - nobody was going to prevent them from being themselves. There was just a certain rebellious momentum. I tried to be in on it early on but I also felt hurt. I understand now that it’s what needed to happen. It was an historical moment.

And as organizers you could not anticipate that?
Well, I think we did, but we didn't anticipate the momentum that was coming and the need there was going to be for people to express themselves. It was just a clash that I think now needed to happen in our world, but at that time I really didn’t know how to be with it all. I couldn't tolerate anything beyond the capacity I had to understand and it became too much. I remembering thinking, this doesn’t feel right to me anymore - these are our neighbors - I can’t be here, and driving away. It's partly who I am to be sensitive and tuned into the community and then to have a hard time when people are unconscious about or unwilling to look at the impact we have. Throughout my whole history of being a peace activist this issue has come up for me over and over again. To me it has to do with how much we’re able to look at the personal issues we’re projecting out into the world, because we all have universal personal things that we can come together around. I’m not really an activist in the same way any more. I still want and need to be a voice for peace, but I generally don't feel comfortable joining actions. I feel like the process lacks a certain centeredness and I finally learned that I just wasn’t in the right place for who I was. I have more of a sense of spiritual practice and working from within myself. Last month I went to the St. Patrick Four (7) trial for a day and the police had set it up two pens, one for demonstrators and another for counter demonstrators with a lane between the two. While I happened to be there some really awful banter got going partly started by people on the peace activist side being upset because a few older veterans had brought some Iraqis who were against Sadaam Hussein. These people had fled the country because of what had happened to their families under Hussein and they were speaking in support of the United States invasion. It really upset people and they started shouting and this whole awful thing took place. I actually came out of the barricades and tried to go down the center but the police wouldn’t let me and then they wanted me to go back into the peace corral and I told them I couldn't. I told them, "you can't put me on one side or the other," and they said, "why you don't have an opinion?” I said, "yes, I have my opinions but you can’t put me in a box. I understand what these people are saying and I understand what’s going on over here.” We have to realize that those veterans who brought the Iraqi speakers have their own pain and it’s the same pain that I feel it’s just that they’re choosing to dealing with it is this particular way. By the end of the trial I heard the police took those barricades down and the people came together and actually embraced each other. I guess that was really the lesson that I needed to learn - that even if something is happening in this moment that feels so awful, in a few more days something else is happening. And probably to get to that new place, this little explosion had to happen. It's a bigger process and a bigger picture than we can see in that moment.

Any last thoughts on the camp and your experience there?
When I think back to Seneca Army Depot and what was there and what it stood for and I think of women coming and challenging that, I think it was very powerful. It was messy and not necessarily peaceful but it’s a beautiful thing to think about the depot being challenged in some kind of a way – to think about people trying their very best to say "this isn’t how we want to live in this world." I’m glad for all of that and I hope that we somehow keep learning how to be neighbors to one another and how to listen and understand that basically everybody has somewhere in their core a very similar sense and that peace is possible if we can get past the idea that we’re somehow different.


1. Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (1981-2000)
- on August 28, 1981, 40 women marched 110 miles to the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common in England the proposed site of 96 U.S. cruise missiles. Eight days later, four women chained themselves to the air base fence. From this direct action the women’s peace camp was born. On March 21, 1982, 10,000 people demonstrated at the base. 250 women engaged in a 24-hour blockade – 34 were arrested. On December 12, 1982, 300,000 women linked hands to embrace the 9-mile fence encircling the base. Although the last of U.S.’s 96 cruise missile were removed in 1991, women stayed on at Greenham until 2000 to ensure that the base was closed down. In March of 1997, the land was purchased by the Greenham Common Trust and returned to a variety of civilian uses.

2. Women’s Pentagon Action – on November 16-17, 1981, over 2000 women gathered in Washington, DC to call an end to the nuclear arms race. In a creative, nonviolent, direct action, women blocked three entrances to the Pentagon and 143 were arrested. A second Women’s Pentagon Action took place November 15-16, 1982.

3. Seneca Army Depot (pre-1941–2000) - located on 11,000 acres in Romulus, New York, the depot was one of several facilities used to store nuclear weapons for the Department of Defense. The earliest known use of SEAD for nuclear weapons related work was in the 1940's when uranium was stored at the depot for the Manhattan Project (the project that developed the atomic bomb). SEAD was approved for Base Realignment and Closure in 1995 and closed in 2000.

4. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom - founded in 1915 during World War I, with Jane Addams as its first president, WILPF works to achieve through peaceful means world disarmament, full rights for women, racial and economic justice, an end to all forms of violence, and to establish those political, social, and psychological conditions which can assure peace, freedom, and justice for all.

5. Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice Resource Handbook, 1983 – a 51-page peace camp preparation manual containing information on nonviolent action, feminism and nonviolence, the European disarmament movement, the Cayuga nation and the local area.

6. August 1, 1983 – Mass civil disobedience action at the main gate of the Seneca Army Depot - 250 women arrested climbing over the fence.

7. St. Patrick Four – A group of peace activists that, in protest to U.S. plans to invade Iraq, committed civil disobedience on March 17, 2003 at a military recruiting station near Ithaca, NY. The four – Teresa Grady, Claire Grady, Peter DeMott and Danny Burns - were acquitted of criminal mischief and trespassing charges in April 2004 but retried in September 2005 with the added charge of conspiracy. At the second trial, the conspiracy charge was dismissed but the four were found guilty of damaging government property and trespassing. Three of the protestors were sentenced to 6 months in prison, the fourth, four months.

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